Monthly Archives: August 2015

Making and Interpreting Art

Bevan Ramsay,
Bevan Ramsay, “POW,” Harmonia Hindi (2012): digital print on silk satin scarf with pique hem

The importance of perception, when it comes to ‘getting’ art (painting, music, even writing), is often neglected, it seems to me. People want explanations. To explain a perception is possible, but it is not the same as perceiving (let alone learning to shift one’s perspective in the moment to see as one did not see before).

To me it seems that great artists are intuitively playing with perception (their own and that of others) all the time, adjusting and shifting and looking for new ways of perceiving the same thing or sort of thing. Explanations can be offered, of course–from the historical (“he was a member of the Surrealist school …”) to the biological (“he was a male naturally fascinated with visual erotica …”), but they are always hollow at some point. To really ‘get’ some painting or piece of music, you have to weave it into a series of experiences. You can try (as the best teachers do) to see what kind of tapestry the artist was weaving of his own life as he produced whatever work you are studying, but if you don’t experience it for yourself, you will never really ‘know’ what you are talking about when you mention it. The art is part of your life, too. It tells you things. You must notice these things. You must look at your own tapestry.

So many students come to me ‘broken’ in the sense that they have learned to hide from me their voice, their perception of things we study. It is not that they don’t have perceptions or perspective, but that they have learned to avoid sharing too much (casting pearls before swine is the biblical metaphor, not inept). It is sometimes wise to avoid sharing, of course, but at some point we all need to share. If we are really unfortunate, a bad experience growing up can lead to a lifetime of squelching one’s own perceptions–covering them over with dead explanations. The saddest people here, in my experience, are not students per se, but professors–critics who have crushed and tormented and denied their own creative genius to become ‘expert’ judges of everyone else’s. Often they appear completely unaware, on a rational or conscious level, that their explanation of art is denigrating (and angry, and painful, not to mention often wrong). They will usually claim to love whatever it is that they are destroying, but theirs is the love of the vindictive little boy who collects pretty butterflies to pin upon small cards–with neat little labels, in Latin. A beautiful, terrible picture of death.

—Joseph Gresham Miller

Black Swan Tribal Gathering

“We love imperfection, the right kind of imperfection; we pay up for original art and typo-laden first editions.”—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010)

Fullscreen capture 2015-08-22 74816 AM“What do all these people have in common?”—that’s the question Jean-Louis Rheault asked on the first day of this year’s tribal gathering. It’s an excellent question. But no one seemed to have an answer. Not even a theory. We were all thoroughly perplexed. Perhaps this is why Jean-Louis’s question hung over The Tribe—all weekend long—like that magical moving cloud described in The Book of Exodus: it was there, above us, at the Bitcoin Embassy, on the Mountain, in the Greek Restaurant, at the Tam-Tams, in The Wiggle Room, and everywhere else. It hung above that amazing Lebanese food we ate on Friday night, just as it hung, the morning after, above that phenomenal coffee Corey Law brought to Montreal from his organic farm in Hawaii.

The most obvious answer to Jean-Louis’s question is the one that’s most obviously wrong: Nassim Nicholas Taleb isn’t what we have in common. Although his writings and social media presence brought us together, they’re clearly not what’s kept us together. As many remarked throughout the weekend, Nassim wasn’t treated with any kind of special deference—and, so far as I can tell, that’s exactly how he likes things to be. Unlike Nassim-the-Bad-Ass-Public-Intellectual and Nassim-the-Fire-Breathing-Slayer-of-Dragons, Nassim the man is, in person, remarkably unassuming, sweet, self-effacing, thoughtful, kind, generous, forgiving, and, at times, somewhat shy, quiet, introverted, preoccupied, and dreamy. Regardless, I’m sure everyone would agree that Nassim was really just “one of the guys” this past weekend—as much at the center of the festivities as anyone else.

Which is why we’re left with Jean-Louis’s question: What do the members of this remarkably diverse group of people—from all walks of life, who subscribe to wildly divergent ideas about politics, religion, and the good life—have in common? It took a few days, but I think Aaron Elliott and I have, albeit inadvertently, come up with an answer, and it’s this: vulnerability. If there’s one thing that seems to unite us, it’s that we all seem to be, as Aaron put it, “at ease with the idea that each of us has both great strengths and great weaknesses . . . that we don’t need to be omni-capable.” I believe that there are two reasons for this comfort with vulnerability: the first is a function of philosophical practice in general, whilst the second is more particularly a function of Taleb’s lived example.

Real philosophy—understood, as Pierre Hadot understood it, as a way of life, as opposed to an academic discipline—teaches you how to get comfortable with your own incompleteness, your own vulnerability, your mortality, your ignorance; it makes you viscerally aware of how much you need other people for help and wisdom. And, whether we realize it or not, what we’re doing each and every day in this community—this tribe—is, at bottom, philosophy.

The second and more particular reason for this comfort with vulnerability is a function of Taleb himself: because he doesn’t for a second pretend to be perfect, all-knowing, or, as Aaron put it, omni-capable. Nassim is obviously (and often endearingly) flawed, moody, incomplete, and human, all-too-human (to borrow Nietzsche’s phrase); and yet, at one and the same time, he’s brilliant, insightful, and wise. This humane mixture of unmistakable greatness and glaring imperfection is, I believe, key to the salutary nature of his lived example—viz., the fact that he’s so open about his own strengths and weaknesses makes it easier for everyone else in his orbit to be unapologetically flawed and incomplete too.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2nd edition)

How to Tell If You’re a Character in an Ibsen Play

Apologies to The Toast.

Your husband married you for your money, but you don’t know it. When you discover the truth, you are overjoyed.

You are a wealthy and bored socialite. You convince your old boyfriend to kill himself; after he’s dead, the only safe thing to do is kill yourself, too.

You are a boy living in a grim Norwegian coastal town. You plan to leave. This is a mistake.

You have a mortal enemy. Before executing your plan for revenge, you reveal it to him so that he can find its weak points.

You encourage your best friend to kill herself so that you can have her husband, but when he proposes marriage, you decide to kill yourself instead. He joins you.

You are a wealthy bourgeois. Do you have a lot to learn!

You are a corrupt shipping magnate. You give a speech to the entire town revealing your many crimes. This makes you a hero.

You are a doctor. You are determined that the world know the truth, no matter the consequences. This makes you a hero.

You are a wealthy young man. You are certain that the world should be left alone with its cherished illusions. This makes you a hero.

You suffer from chronic illness, thanks to your father’s syphilis.

You are the spoiled, childish wife of a banker, until you suddenly transform into an author surrogate.

Your family is faced with a problem. You decide you’d better commit suicide before anyone else can.

You are the beloved pet of a young girl. She will certainly kill you, unless she kills herself first.

You are a middle-aged architect who falls in love with a much younger woman. You also have psychic powers, but they won’t save you.

Letter to an Expert

“Arguments from authority are rarely made by authorities.”
—Aaron Haspel, Everything: A Book of Aphorisms (2015)

Dear Mr. Expert,

You say that the people most critical of any job or pursuit are most often those who don’t have to actually do it. This is to a large extent true, and, at times, as you say, annoying. But I’m worried about how this argument is customarily used: namely, as a convenient way to silence critics and avoid answering difficult questions. “Trust me,” says the spook at the dinner party, “if you saw the scary intelligence reports I see every day, you’d know why we’ve gotta suspend civil liberties for a little while and wiretap grandma.”

Paternalism of this stamp works in healthy societies with a high degree of social trust, societies with well-functioning elites. It breaks down when that trust is betrayed and the people lose faith in their elites. For instance, if the power elite running the show in my society seems, for the most part, to know what they’re doing, if they seem to be doing a fairly good job, I might be inclined to accept the spook’s explanation on faith. But, as it happens, I don’t trust my government. Not now. Not recently. Because they’ve betrayed my trust on numerous occasions in the last decade. So, if it’s not too much trouble, I think I’d like to take a look at those intelligence reports you mentioned. If it’s all the same to you, I think I’d like to see them files, with my own two eyes. Okay? That cool with you?

Didn’t think so.

But seriously, I’m willing to accept that there are some things that I simply cannot see (e.g., for reasons of national security). And I’m equally willing to accept that there’s a short list of things which are simply beyond my ken, things which are so complicated that I simply won’t be able to grasp them regardless of how hard you try to enlighten me. I have limitations. I get that. And I’m okay with that. But, still, Mr. Expert, don’t be too hasty! Don’t be so quick to conclude that you’ve smacked into the plexiglass of my intellectual limitations just because I don’t “get it” the first time around. If I don’t seem to be getting it, it could be because I’m just not that smart; but it’s probably because you’re just not very good at explaining yourself.

If fifteen years of teaching has taught me anything, it’s this: if the student isn’t getting it, it’s almost always the teacher’s fault. If I can’t seem to grasp what you’re saying, it’s probably because you’re using weird language that’s unfamiliar to me (e.g., professional jargon). If I’m not getting it, it’s probably because you’re leaving out vital parts of the explanation. So, then, the idea you’re trying to convey isn’t the problem; you, sir, are the problem. After all, let’s face it: the experts working on the really difficult stuff—the Nobel Prize winning stuff, the stuff that many of us are simply incapable of understanding—are now, as they have always been, a small subset of those known as experts. That’s the dirty little secret the high priests of expert worship don’t want us to know: namely, that most of what so-called experts do isn’t rocket science.

The list of things that I cannot see, or am incapable of seeing, is a short list. And it ought to be a short list. But it’s not a short list in 2016. All to the contrary: it’s a long list, and it’s getting longer and longer with each passing year. Why? In part, this is because our governments are moving in scary directions: towards a kind of Orwellian surveillance state that ought to give us all pause. But in many ways our governments are just mirroring a larger social trend. We are moving, with shocking rapidity, away from the open society our grandparents fought for, and towards a closed society ruled by experts. Winning an election, toppling a shitty government, bankrupting a corrupt corporation: these are all good things, and they’ll help, but they don’t go far enough, not nearly far enough. We need to reclaim and reassert the right of the citizen to doubt, question, and expect answers from experts.

That being said, what I’m saying doesn’t apply to all experts. Because clearly some of them are benign. For instance, if you’re studying ancient Egyptian scrolls (or something equally arcane), you can do whatever you wish. I don’t care. Knock yourself out. Have your little private parties, with your secret handshakes: it’s all good. But if you’re an expert whose work has a direct bearing upon the health and well-being of people I love, if you’re entrusted with the care of my children, my aging parents, my environment, my food, my water, my economy, well, then, you’re going to have to get over yourself, reach outside of your comfort zone, and tell me, in plain speech, what the f*ck you’re doing. And why you’re doing it. Telling me to sit down and shut up. Telling me to calm down and go home. Telling me that you’ve “got this” . . . well, that’s just not gonna fly anymore. Why? Because if the history of the last half century teaches us anything, it’s that you guys don’t always know what you’re doing. Nor do you always have my best interests in mind.

Still, fear not! I’m not about to go off on some wacky anti-vaccination rant. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you (or at least most of you) have worked long and hard to gain the expertise you have. Indeed, I’ll happily go much farther than that: most experts know,really know, a great deal more about their area of expertise than I ever will. And I respect that. But you need to respect my right to ask questions and expect answers. Does this mean that you’re going to have repeat yourself often? Yep. Does this mean you’re going to have to field some really stupid questions? Yep. But so what? Seriously, suck it up: because the alternative isn’t pretty. Open societies have always been societies filled with dilettantes and generalists: societies filled with soldiers who can write half-decent poetry, shopkeepers who moonlight as amateur entomologists, and stay-at-moms who can talk intelligently about foreign policy.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Where the Wild Things Are

10507119_10152224074252683_6351617770361211778_o-001In the annals of childhood storytelling and imaginative play, one of my favorite books is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Despite being banned by most libraries and receiving universally negative reviews from critics when it was first published in 1963, the book quickly became and has remained one of the most popular and well-loved staples of children’s literature in North America. And like many kids who loved Max and the wild things, I’m sure that at least some of its popularity can be explained by how well it resonated with the imaginary places I constructed in childhood to escape the consequences of being banished to my dull room as punishment for some ill-advised behavior. Yet I’m also convinced, more recently, that the Wild Things and their world are indicative of a far more pervasive and omnipresent part of our culture—one which imagines the wild as a far-off, exotic, and ‘natural’ landscape as a safety valve to escape the pressures of our post-industrial and denatured lives. And while the temptation to envision an unspoiled world in the face of the complex environmental challenges of the 21st century is certainly understandable, responding to them effectively begins with imagining this narrative differently.

Why? Because narratives, stories, and myths matter: they shape the way that we think about one another and the world. They shape the way we, even as children, imagine certain places, spaces and ideas. And when it comes to nature, the environment, and where the wild things are, they have very real consequences for the way we understand, see and act in the world. Let me illustrate this with one example from a setting that is probably familiar to you:  the public park.

Last summer, my husband and I stopped with our two boys at a playground on a break from walking around the much larger public park in our hometown. On the playground, they joined other kids on the gym equipment while we took stock of the area for a place to sit. In the process, we noticed and sat near a huge supply of wild black raspberry bushes with ripe fruit lining the cultivated playground lawn. As we watched other caregivers, parents, and careful folk unpack their Tupperware containers or other brightly colored snack-themed paraphernalia, my husband and I turned around and picked some of those black raspberries for our kids, who then devoured them.  Yet no one else did, even though there was more than enough for everyone, including all of the adults and their friends, to go around. And when the kids were done, we left the gym equipment to explore the paths through and around the trees for salamanders, snakes, butterflies and all manner of bugs. Yet while the playground was full with families and we encountered other adults with the occasional kid on those paths, our boys turned over rocks, climbed trees and scaled logs virtually alone. There was wildlife and wild raspberries aplenty in this very public and very popular park. But no one seemed aware of or interested in them.

IMG_7221-002Of course, it would be a mistake to assume that all of the parents and participants we encountered want to find bugs or chase butterflies or check out the berries with their kids in the park. But it’s a bigger mistake to assume that they don’t value the trees or butterflies or berries either. After all, it is not as if we don’t value nature, or wildlife, just because the kids are at the playground that day. In fact, given all of the ‘new research’ dedicated to extolling the virtues of the forest in fashionable parenting manuals these days, I would venture to guess that most families and parents in attendance at the park that day value the lessons of nature and the wild more than their parents’ generation did. We just don’t tend to look for them in our local park.

Fullscreen capture 2015-06-014It is also probably safe to say that many, or even most, of the adults we encountered would probably not recognize the fruit on those bushes as black raspberries, or, if they did, would not be willing to pick and eat them directly from those branches. And many or most who might have been interested in the wildlife probably did not know how or where to find a red-backed salamander. So our separation from the natural world, including a basic knowledge of how to recognize food, plants or wildlife that are native to the park and everyday surroundings is certainly part of the equation. And sure, my husband and I have some experience in recognizing black raspberry bushes, so perhaps this makes sense.

Fullscreen capture 2015-06-012But lack of knowledge doesn’t explain the undeniable fact that  it wasn’t because the adults at the park on that hot summer day ignored or dismissed or distrusted the wild black raspberries at the edge of the playground that they went uneaten. It was, rather, because they literally didn’t see what was right behind them, didn’t notice the bushes and trees that surrounded the playground—that, in short, the raspberries went uneaten because because they were invisible. My husband and I were the only adults, in fact, to approach the bushes in close enough proximity to either recognize or contemplate whether the fruit we saw on them was edible.

So I suppose it would be useful to here entertain the sociological explanations for parental tunnel vision, including lack of time, busy schedules, helicopter parenting and a host of other pressures that keep us from spending time in or noticing the more unstructured aspects of park play.  But, again, that only gets us so far, because busy schedules get cleared for nature and wildlife, if even only on occasion.

IMG_4846-003So this leaves us with the final and most important question: if we value nature, and wildlife, and/or the natural environment, or if we value hobbies and past times because they enable us to get out into ‘nature’, and/or if we make sure to spend time going camping, hiking, or ‘getting away’ from urban or suburban life to greener pastures and trees when possible, why do we neglect the wild side of our local public parks?

Fullscreen capture 2015-05-25 113720 PMThe answer takes us back to Sendak: wildlife, wild things, and ‘nature’ are not found in the urban or suburban park, but away from human life, in camp grounds and on hiking trails, in the ‘country’, and, most importantly, removed from everyday human life and experience. We ‘escape’ to nature where it is valued for its capacity to be unspoiled—that is, untouched or unmarked by human habitation. And the more unspoiled, the more fantastic, and the more exotic, the more we value the ‘wild’ of it all, the more we think of it as a cure for what’s wrong in our lives, and the more we feel the need to protect it and the parts of ourselves that find refuge there.

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)
Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

The problem with this, of course, as the 19th century conservationists eventually realized, is that the ‘environment’ and what is ‘natural’ is not a some destination merely to be set aside for future enjoyment. Downwind or downstream pollution do not respect either political or social boundaries, and we ignore the impact of these, as well as the issues of sanitation, air quality, and job safety—that is, human problems—that directly shape their intensity and direction, at our peril. But we also rob ourselves of the opportunity to wonder about, and in, the beauty and refuge of experiencing wildlife and nature in our everyday lives. In our park, all we needed to do was pay attention to the trees, bushes, and the entirety of the green space and park landscape surrounding us that day to find it. And all one ever needs to do is slow down, get off the bike, treat the path as the destination rather than the route to get there, and explore. And what happens if you do so? You find that there is a wild side, even in the center of a post-industrial city, not just rife with wild black (and red) raspberries, but of snakes and salamanders, of toads and butterflies that settle on and under your feet, and of trees or logs or bogs that can be crossed, or climbed, or tested at will.

IMG_4010-001

But the deeper and more meaningful implications of this—of fully recognizing and exploring your neighborhood, park and everyday life as part of the natural world—are far more radical. Recognizing where the wild things are at the edges of the playground, on the path to the gym equipment, and in the everyday environments of our daily lives inheres deeper, more meaningful lessons concerning the role of knowledge, the significance of humility, and the place of natural limits on our world than any weekend camping expedition. Because paying attention to what is wild in our everyday lives ultimately makes us responsible for making sure what we find, whether they are bees or blueberry bushes, will be valued and protected as well.

I still love Sendak and the thought of escaping to far off places with the Wild Things. And I don’t think we should stop valuing the beauty and power of the natural landscapes and places to transform us. But we do need stories that enable us to imagine and thus see the wild spaces all around us to help us understand that we are, in fact, connected to and part of those landscapes. Perhaps in doing so, we can begin thinking differently about how to achieve a more sustainable world.

—Anna-Liisa Aunio

The Hunchback of Notre Acadame

“Every trade distorts. Look at our childhood friends, after they have grown up and settled into their chosen professions . . . . Are they not constantly obsessed and possessed by their work! Have they not been crumpled and crushed by it . . . into something almost unrecognizable, something constrained, deprived of equilibrium, balance . . . . Every profession, even those with a golden floor, has also a leaden ceiling above it, which presses and presses upon the soul, till it is pressed into a strange and distorted shape. This is a sad but inevitable part of growing up: and there’s no way to get around it. . . . Every kind of perfection is purchased at a high price on earth, where everything, it seems, costs us far too much. One becomes an expert in one’s chosen profession only at the price of being also a victim of it.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1887)

Over-and-UnderSometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s sad: watching a job consume an old friend’s personality, bit by bit, like a cancer, or a B-movie body-snatcher. Those who go into medicine seem to forget that we have souls, whilst those who do computer stuff seem to forget that we have bodies. The technocrats develop a kind of messianic faith in the ability of technology to right every wrong. What’s more, these dudes (they’re almost always dudes) invariably lose faith in the competence of the common man over time; and, as they do, their disdain for democracy can become, at times, downright disturbing. Get a few glasses of wine into these guys and you’ll discover that they long for a world ruled by experts: experts who seem to look a whole lot like them.

The bureaucrats suffer from a rather generic disorder that manifests amongst experts in pretty much any field. Hallmark symptoms include a pretentious desire to use abstruse terminology when common language would suffice (e.g., saying “H2O” instead of “water”), and a concomitant inability to communicate with intelligent people outside of your own little world. The therapists and social workers vastly overestimate the power of talk, and vastly underestimate the power of silence. The NGO missionaries can’t seem to see the enduring power (and intractability) of enmity. As for those who go into sales: well, eventually, many of them don’t know how to stop selling. They just can’t seem to turn it off; and this can, at times, make trivial interactions with them (such as choosing a restaurant or a movie) feel vaguely icky and gross in retrospect. But of course teachers (like me) are the worst.

Teachers tend to become tedious and long-winded with age. What’s more, since they’re used to lecturing at students (as opposed to talking with peers), they’re often, by late middle age, preachy, precious, and pedantic: great at monologue but terrible at dialogue. Also, as you’ve surely noticed, the prof at the party always seems to be far too loud. It’s like the volume is busted on his face or something. Truth be told, sometimes he’s so loud that people assume (wrongly, they later on discover) that he’s recently experienced some substantial hearing loss. As Nietzsche observed in The Gay Science, many of these professional deformities are inevitable. We get a “hunchback” sooner or later, whether we like it or not. But there are some limitations which need not exist. The sorry state of academic writing is a case in point.

I was recently castigated by a colleague, in a review of Blue Notes, for referring to Nassim Nicholas Taleb as a “philosopher”; he took issue, as well, with my numerous references to popular culture, and with my failure to write the book in a sufficiently academic fashion. As my friend Kaï Matthews quite rightly observed, these three seemingly disparate criticisms are, in fact, all of a piece. At some point in the mid-20th century, people with PhDs in Philosophy decided that “philosophers” were really just people with PhDs in Philosophy. What’s worse, they seem to have concluded, at more or less the same time, that the only truly legitimate form of philosophical writing is the jargon-laden article—written by and for the specialist, and published in an obscure academic journal. Everything else that a philosopher writes is, at best, a clumsy attempt at outreach or a watered-down version of the real thing.

Thinkers who traffic in serious ideas are probably freer now, in the 21st-century West, than ever before. And yet there’s a playfulness in the genre-defying writings of philosophers like Plato, Nietzsche and Rousseau, a playfulness that’s noticeably missing from the intellectual life of our day and age. We love to make fun of Kant for being so unbelievably uptight; but, stylistically speaking, he was far freer than we. Expressing a serious idea in a poem, a song, a dialogue, or an op-ed in the New York Times wouldn’t seem shockingly unorthodox to him, nor would the notion that straightforward, jargon-free prose can communicate profound philosophical truths to curious citizens who know how to read.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

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The Tao of Boo

Fullscreen capture 822015 25942 AMPENNSATUCKY: Did you know I didn’t shoot that nurse lady [at the abortion clinic] for any type of holy righteous thing like they all think? I, uh . . . I got really mad and she hurt my . . . . She hurt my feelings. And sometimes . . . I get this . . . I get this really bad temper. Phew. . . . You still like me or. . . .

BIG BOO (laughing): Oh, Doggett . . . don’t you know what this means?

PENNSATUCKY: Yeah. I’m going to hell.

BIG BOO: No, no. It means you’re the normal one. I mean, come on . . . some bitch insulted you, so you shot her? Now, to me, that makes a hell of a lot more sense than shooting a complete stranger that you’ve demonized for your own agenda. I mean, being too militant about anything . . . never ends well.

—“Finger in the Dyke,” Orange is the New Black (S03E04)

How an Obsessive Concern with Disrespect Poisons the Soul

“She disrespected me. Now, I’m gonna have to kill her.”—Pennsatucky, Orange is the New Black (S01E12)

Harboring Hate
dis-disease (n.): degenerative disease of the soul characterized by a hypersensitivity to real and imagined insults. What starts out as garden-variety touchiness grows into an obsessive concern with disrespect. Before long, the sweet kid you once knew has turned into a hateful, poisonous adult: the kind of person who harbors resentments for decades; the kind of person who keeps a detailed record of every past “dis” (real or imagined); the kind of person who prayerfully pages through a hateful little Naughty List each and every day.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker maintains that the transition from a “culture of honour” to a “culture of dignity”—all by itself—leads to dramatic drops in violence. What’s more, Pinker details the horrific social costs of an obsession with disrespect; but this morning, as I contemplate the troubled mind of an old friend, I’m reminded of its horrific psychological costs. Even in a society like ours, which has (for the most part) transcended the culture of honour and embraced a culture of dignity, there are people who slip through the cracks. Like Mohammad Shafia (who murdered his own daughters), these poor souls are consumed, over time, by their hypersensitivity to real and imagined insults. What starts out as garden-variety touchiness grows into an obsessive concern with disrespect. Before long, the sweet kid you once knew has turned into a hateful, poisonous adult: the kind of person who harbors resentments for decades; the kind of person who—like an Angry Middle Eastern Sky God—keeps a detailed record of every past “dis” (real or imagined); the kind of person who prayerfully pages through a hateful little Naughty List each and every day. I wonder if they realize how much damage they’re doing to themselves. I wonder if the damage can be undone. Is there a cure for dis-disease?

There’s a charismatic con artist in my neighborhood who’s fooled all of us once (myself included). He’s a remarkably good actor with a winning smile and effortless charm. After a warm “Hello, how are you?” he proceeds to give you an impeccably well-scripted sob-story about his dear little sister, who’s dying—right now!—in a Toronto hospital. He desperately wants to get on a bus to Toronto forthwith, but can’t seem to do so because his bank cards have all been frozen (for reasons which remain a mystery to him). He fooled me once. But he didn’t fool me twice. Probably hasn’t fooled anyone twice, because we’re quite good at remembering strangers who screw us over. My guess is that he’d be out of business in a week if it weren’t for the steady stream of tourists and students who come to this neighborhood to party.

A bonhomme who didn’t know how to remember slights would be an easy mark for our friendly neighborhood con artist. In fact, we’d rightly refer to him as a sucker. Our local con artist could fool this Forrest Gump day after day after day. So it seems fair to assume that in a state of nature, vengeful folk, with a well-developed capacity for holding grudges, will always prevail, sooner or later, over suckers who lack this capacity. And since we’re all descendants of the ones who made it—the human groups that survived—it should come as no surprise to discover that a heart of darkness beats within many a breast.

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When it comes to dis-disease, Pennsatucky, the charismatic meth head from Orange is the New Black, is a kind of perfect storm. Along with being addicted to a drug that distorts and amplifies the vengeance drive, she was in all likelihood socialized, from Day One, into a dysfunctional poor southern white culture that’s already overly obsessed with honour, shame, and disrespect.

Like a dangerous but well-trained guard dog, our capacity for hatefulness isn’t really much of a threat to our day-to-day health and well-being when it’s directed at outsiders and enemies—since, as Rousseau rightly observes in Émile (1762), most of us spend very little time interacting with outsiders and enemies, and the “essential thing is to be good to the people with whom one lives.” The vengeance drive is, like the sex drive, necessary and normal; without it, we would have gone extinct long ago. But the sex drive and the vengeance drive are also extremely dangerous. They can rip human groups apart if they’re not highly regulated by taboo boundaries. The part of the brain responsible for the regulation of these powerful drives is known as the frontal cortex. When it’s damaged by accident or disease, an ugliness emerges from the human heart which is often quite shocking.

Jonathan Haidt discusses such a case in The Happiness Hypothesis (2006): “A schoolteacher in his forties had, fairly suddenly, begun to visit prostitutes, surf child pornography Web sites, and proposition young girls. He was soon arrested and convicted of child molestation. The day before his sentencing, he went to the hospital emergency room because he had a pounding headache and was experiencing a constant urge to rape his landlady. (His wife had thrown him out of the house months earlier.) Even while he was talking to the doctor, he asked passing nurses to sleep with him. A brain scan found that an enormous tumor in his frontal cortex was squeezing everything else, preventing the frontal cortex from doing its job of inhibiting inappropriate behavior and thinking about consequences. (Who in his right mind would put on such a show the day before his sentencing?) When the tumor was removed, the hypersexuality vanished. Moreover, when the tumor grew back the following year, the symptoms returned; and when the tumor was removed again, the symptoms disappeared again.”

Just as damage to the frontal cortex can cause people to focus their sex drive on children and insiders—who ought to be off limits and thus subject to taboo boundaries—I suspect that damage to the frontal cortex may also cause people to focus their vengeance drive on friends and family. My reasoning is based, in part, on the following observation: excessive abuse of alcohol and certain drugs (especially speed and meth) severely impairs the functioning of the frontal cortex, and drunks, speed-freaks, and meth-heads are notoriously vengeful. They can’t seem to let anything go. If you doubt me, I suggest that you have a long conversation with the mean drunk in your family later on this evening. If that doesn’t convince you, not sure what will.

I worked with this guy in the early 1990s who eventually died of A.I.D.S. He told me that he first suspected that something might be wrong when he noticed two things: (1) he seemed to catch every single cold and flu that was going around; and (2) it often took him a month to recover from a cold that others recovered from in a day or two. The symptoms of dis-disease are strikingly similar: (1) the person seems to get extremely offended often, by slights which most view as trivial or unimportant; and (2) the person seems to take an exceptionally long time to get over real or imagined insults (e.g., they’re still talking about something that happened last year with an emotional intensity which would lead an eavesdropper to suspect that it happened earlier on today at work). When the sex drive is allowed to run free, it often destroys families and rips communities apart. The same is true of the vengeance drive. So you’ve gotta find a way to keep your self-righteous inner accountant in check—by, for instance, taking up meditation, seeing a therapist, or getting treatment for your substance abuse (if that’s the root of your particular problem). The strategies to be found are diverse, but they all come down to this: our friends and family need forgiveness and grace as much as we do. And they won’t be our friends and family for long if they don’t get it.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)